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Get to Carnegie Hall: Practice Problem-Solving

A 25-year Army combat veteran who studied Economics at the Eisenhower School and Strategy at the Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

Carnegie Hall in New York

Carnegie Hall in New York

Problem Category Model by FJG

Problem Category Model by FJG

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.” – Unknown Musician

Almost everything we do in life is about solving problems and making decisions. I mean, think about this for a second. We are constantly looking at some type of problem and deciding how to deal with it. We make many of our decisions under stress and with little time to think about it thoroughly. Consequently, we immediately look for a solution that worked before. But this approach gets us stuck in a circle of solving the same problem with the same solution over and over again. But what if the nature of the problem changes? One’s solution will inevitably lose effect and it will happen at the worst time possible. Therefore, it's useful to use an organized method to understand a problem and eventually solve it. The first thing we need to do is determine what the problem is.

Define and Frame the Problem

In the 7 Habits of Effective People, Stephen R. Covey’s 5th habit is: “Seek First to Understand.” Understanding the problem is crucial since it simply allows us to know what we need to solve. Many of us waste precious time solving the wrong problem. Very few of us can afford such forfeiture of time. So a good way to start is using a simple checklist where one can ask brief yet insightful questions.

  1. What type of problem are we facing?
  2. What are you seeing or sensing that makes you to think there's a problem?
  3. Are there manifestations of the problem that I can point to?
  4. When and how is it happening?
  5. Where and to whom is it happening?
  6. Why is it happening?

Based on the questions above, one needs to prepare a problem statement to serve as a launching point for refined understanding and focused problem-solving analysis. An example of a simple but effective problem statement format is the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. Such a statement pegs the problem and its framework, though primitive at times, can expand our understanding of the problem.

Categorizing the Problem

The dichotomy of control is a key philosophical and psychological concept. It's a problem-solving tool that identifies the way one needs to successfully respond to life’s challenges. First, you identify the elements of the situation that you can control. Then, the elements that you can't control, but that you can influence. And finally, one identifies and the things that one can neither control nor influence, forcing one to adapt accordingly. In a similar fashion, problems have to be put into perspective to get a sense of what you can and can't accomplish. This allows one to focus energy and efforts where they will have the most impact.

One way to do this is by using the Problem Category Model created by the author to categorize the problem faced by relating influence and importance.

The model shows four category quadrants and two axes. A y-axis that demonstrates the degree influence (low to high) on a problem and the x-axis showing the degree of importance and/or level of priority. Each quadrant is the category the problem falls in based on the problem’s level of influence and importance.

Category I is Ignore. In this quadrant, a problem is low on importance and we don’t want to waste much energy on it. Therefore, it is ignored for the foreseeable future, effectively being filed as a cold case.

Category II is Harvest. This type of problem can, time permitting, be analyzed and solved if problems with higher priority do not appear. The problems in this quadrant must be kept active, reviewed, and solved when possible. The challenge is that if these are ignored for too long, they pile up and by their mass and velocity become bigger problems that can hinder progress in a grander scale.

Category III is Solve. These are high importance/priority problems that we can and need to solve. In such a case, the individual or the organization possess the pre-requisite skills to solve the problem in an effective manner.

Category IV is Manage. There will be problems that are critical to solve but are so complex and dynamic that they take time to solve.

Working to a Solution

Now that we have framed the problem and categorized the problem, it’s time to start identifying courses of action (COA) to resolve the problem. As we consider the best course of action, one should consider the following points:

  1. Which COA is the most likely to solve the problem for the long term?
  2. Which COA is the most feasible, acceptable, and suitable to accomplish now?
  3. What is the risk associated with each COA?

At this point, it's useful to understand how a leader can best communicate with his team and trusted advisors to get feedback and create a set of solutions for a particular problem. Three ways that can lead to effective feedback and COA development are brainstorming, advocacy, and inquiry.

We all understand how brainstorming collects as many ideas as possible, then screens them to find the best idea. This works best when you put a group of peers together that are comfortable spit balling ideas without senior leaders present to pass real or perceived judgments. Another two ways are advocacy and inquiry.

In advocacy, each member directly states his/her opinion. Although it allows all of the players to know what the other ones’ position is, it does not allow for much understanding since there’s little inquiry into each other’s position. This process, if not supervised carefully, can lead to full advocacy of one particular position since it may feel that the designated group leader is pushing his agenda and wants to steamroll those in the team that oppose the proposal.

On the other hand, inquiry attempts to create a more level playing field by using questions to flush out information about the problem. It allows everyone to challenge the problem through their responses to a question. This method can allow for more involvement as it tends to create an atmosphere of sharing and dialogue.

A last method can be called the hybrid. This is where the leader combines the best aspects of advocacy and inquiry into the problem-solving discourse.

Answering the Problem Statement

Earlier we spoke about creating a problem statement to allow us to initiate the analysis that opened the door to creating courses of action to our problem. Now, we need to develop a procedure to respond to our problem statement. One useful way is in this author’s seven step solution recommendation.

  1. Restate the problem. This is the final time to ensure the right problem is addressed.
  2. Start point; where we were.
  3. The desired endpoint based on the courses of action. Could be more than one.
  4. Why was it important for us to solve the problem? What was the theory underlining the problem?
  5. What was the data telling us? What were the indicators pointing us to our conclusions?
  6. Present only factual analysis. Never bend data to tell a biased opinion. Let the data speak for itself.
  7. Make a recommendation.


Up to this point, we have one last thing to do in accordance with John Boyd’s OODA loop cycle, observe–orient–decide–act; we need to act—make a decision. A bold, well informed decision is the goal. However, there will be times that a decision is necessary before all wanted information comes in. A decision is crucial because nothing could be worse than being too late.

In pilot terms, an aircraft doesn’t fly itself. The pilot in command has to fly the aircraft and can never accept being its passenger, thus he/she invites danger. Take command and control and be decisive. This is a foundational ability for a successful leader.

With your action plan in hand, one has to keep some important things in mind.

  1. Carefully consider what indicators you expect to start seeing. "What will the situation look like when we solve the problem?"
  2. What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative within an acceptable timeline. Time is rarely a friend.
  3. How will you supervise the execution of the plan?
  4. What resources will you need?
  5. Who’s in charge and do they have the necessary authorities?
  6. Communicate, communicate, and communicate.
  7. Don’t forget, there’s always something else to do. You need to be vigilant. Pay attention to problems like a Kindergarten class and nothing will take you by surprise.

In the end, a leader has to get results. If one wants an engaged and results-driven team, the vision, guidance, and motivation must match the challenge. This allows team members across the organization to embody leadership in both a quantitative and qualitative way where all are focused on results while understanding and maximizing interpersonal skills. So, let problems come, fight to solve them and get better at it each and every day. Remember, we need to practice to get to Carnegie Hall.

© 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jr